Overdue library fees

British Columbia's public libraries may be forced to reduce their hours if they don't get the funding they need from the provincial government. Public Eye has exclusively learned those libraries haven't yet received their annual operating grants. Nor have they told how much money they'll be getting - both of which should have usually happened by now.

When asked why, a ministry of education spokesperson said, "Decisions have not been finalized."

A late notification wouldn't be without precedent. Last year, libraries received those notices in August. But the president of the association representing library trustees has said he suspects this delay means cutbacks. And those cutbacks could force libraries to reduce their hours, programs and staff.

In the past fiscal year, according to the association, libraries received $11 million worth in operating grants. That may not sound like much money. But association president Andy Ackermann said libraries count on the grants, which can make up more than ten percent of their budget.

Squamish's library is one of them, receiving $84,466 or 10.5 percent of its budget from that grant in 2008. And the chair of the library's board of trustees said she can't makeup the shortfall if a similar amount isn't received in 2009.

"Most of our funds come from the municipal government," explained Sonja Lebans.

"And the municipal governments are strapped right now too. So asking them for anymore - or suggesting they do some of these programs - is really a problem."

As result, Squamish "may start losing some hours or staff."

Bigger libraries could also be affected.

Last year, the grant accounted for just 2.7 percent of Vancouver's $43.7 million budget. But, according to city librarian Paul Whitney, Vancouver has already built that funding into its 2009 budget.

Which means, if the government notifies libraries in September that those grants are being cut, "we would be three-quarters of the way into our fiscal year finding out we had a 2.7 percent shortfall in our revenue. And that would be a serious problem."

Mr. Whitney said, as a result of that potential problem and other possible budget pressures, he's working on contingency plans for about "six possible outcomes" - which could include "reduce hours of access and, in a worst case scenario, you're talking about reduced service points."

In other words, actual branch closures.

On June 17, the library trustees association - along with four other groups - requested a meeting with Premier Gordon Campbell and Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid to discuss their concerns.

Late Tuesday, the minister's office scheduled that meeting for July 28 - although the premier won't be coming.

Mr. Ackermann said he's hopeful Minister MacDiarmid will tell them libraries are going to get their "normal level of funding." But, he added, "all the tea leaves are saying no."

And that wouldn't just be bad news for book readers.

"We've noticed since the economic downturn, there's been a significant increase in the usage of libraries. So people are turning to libraries for help - not just for getting books free to read but also using the Internet and the computer systems for such things as even applying for unemployment insurance."

But, if operating grants are reduced, Mr. Ackermann stated there might not be any help to be had. The following is a complete copy of the aforementioned meeting request.

***

June 17, 2009

The Honourable Gordon Campbell
Premier of British Columbia
PO Box 9041
STN PROV GOVT
Victoria, BC V8W 9E1

Dear Premier Campbell:

We are writing to request a meeting with you to discuss our serious concerns with provincial funding for public libraries in British Columbia. As you may or may not know, our libraries have not received their 2009 grants from the Province. Libraries across our province use this funding to support a myriad of cooperative programs and services - from interlibrary loans to collaborative reference, from leveraging cooperative purchasing to province-wide reciprocal borrowing through the BC OneCard.

While we are fully aware of the fiscal challenges you and your government are facing, we feel that any reduction of support in these key areas will not only significantly affect the operations of all libraries, but will in fact be a step backward in achieving your government's literacy goals. Any savings to be had from short-term cutbacks will only result in higher long-term costs - both financial and social.

We would like to meet with you and with the Minister responsible, Dr. Margaret MacDiarmid, as soon as possible to review the significance of provincial funding to the invaluable province-wide library services enjoyed by all citizens of BC. In this meeting we will clearly outline why we believe this to be such a critical issue.

Errin Morrison, Executive Director of the British Columbia Library Trustees Association, will be in touch with your office and will work with your staff to coordinate a meeting with our delegation.

Sincerely,

Andy Ackerman, President
British Columbia Library Trustees Association

Ken Cooley, President
British Columbia Library Association

Ursula Brigl, President
Association of BC Public Library Directors

Mayor Peter Fassbender, Chair
Fraser Valley Regional Library Board

Chair Robert Hobson, President
Union of British Columbia Municipalities

CC: The Honourable Margaret MacDiarmid, Minister of Education
Jacqueline van Dyk, Director, Public Library Services Branch

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